Wednesday night in Washington was a big one for the future of the Republican Party. At the Capitol building, Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, was filibustering the nomination of John Brennan as director of the CIA. At the swanky Jefferson Hotel, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, was convening a dinner with President Barack Obama and 12 other Republican senators. These simultaneous events revealed while elephants are no closer to resolving their party-wide identity crisis, there is a way forward.
Paul filibustered Brennan's nomination for nearly 13 hours Wednesday and early Thursday morning. By the time it ended, he had accomplished a lot. Paul successfully drove the news cycle from the Senate floor, a nearly impossible accomplishment. He drew praise from both sides of the political spectrum for his courage in pursuing his convictions. Most importantly, he captured the nation's imagination and invigorated libertarians and grassroots conservatives. #StandwithRand continued trending on Twitter hours after he yielded the floor.
The filibuster was a tactical win. Paul delayed the vote on Brennan because he was seeking White House clarification on what limits they believe the law places on the use of drones to kill Americans. He got his answer. Attorney General Eric Holder promptly sent a response on Thursday. During his afternoon briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney emphasized that the administration had responded to Paul. "The answer to that question is no," Mr. Carney reiterated.
The Jefferson Hotel dinner represents business as usual in the Republican Party. Graham was Johnny on the spot when Obama asked him to gather a group. In attendance were Sens. John McCain of Arizona; Tom Coburn of Oklahoma; Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire; Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania; Bob Corker of Tennessee; Ron Johnson of Wisconsin; Saxby Chambliss of Georgia; John Hoeven of North Dakota; Dan Coats of Indiana; Richard Burr of North Carolina; and Mike Johanns of Nebraska. MMcCain walked out of the dinner giving a thumbs up to the press and calling the meeting, "great" and "wonderful." Graham has called it "productive," saying that "when Mr. Obama reaches out, we need to reach back." This idea of reactive reciprocity is part of what has so frustrated the grassroots in the first place.
These two approaches to negotiating with the Obama administration produced two different results. Paul demanded an answer from the White House for nearly 13 hours. He held up the administration's agenda and drew the nation's attention to a serious constitutional question. He stood up to the president and triumphed. As Paul told me Thursday, "Getting a response from the White House is pretty good."
Graham gladly provided Obama with access to members of the Republican Party apart from what the president considers a recalcitrant Republican leadership. As a result, Obama won headlines the next day for his bipartisan magnanimity. Graham and McCain kicked off a skirmish inside the party, distracting from the overwhelmingly positive attention generated by Paul's filibuster. Thursday McCain called fellow GOP Sens. Paul and Ted Cruz of Texas "wacko birds." petulantly changed his vote on Brennan to one of support. Leaders like former Speaker Newt Gingrich are picking sides in what didn't need to be an intraparty conflict.
Paul's filibuster shows there may be life in the Grand Old Party yet. Millions of Americans now have a reason to take a second look at the Republican Party. Though he's not a member of Senate leadership, Paul showed that he has the stuff it takes to lead. Fourteen senators supported his filibuster along with 15 to 20 House members who came to sit along the back wall of the Senate in solidarity. Three of the 14 were freshmen senators who delivered their maiden speeches on the Senate floor—a landmark occasion for newbie legislators—in support of Mr. Paul.
He started his filibuster having given no warning to the leadership of his party. Paul did it because he thought it was right, and explained his position using opinion pieces and the Constitution. His stand was clearly seen by McCain and Graham as presumption by a junior senator who needs to know his place. Yet in speaking out, Paul offered a champion to young Republicans who want real discussions on policy. He gave a voice to grassroots conservatives who have been disgusted with a Republican leadership they view as too establishment—too willing to compromise principles to score a deal with Mr. Obama. Paul stuck to his guns, something the McCains and Grahams of Washington consider naivete. Consider the irony of the fact that Graham had threatened his own filibuster if the administration didn't give more information about the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi. Subsequently changing his vote to then support Brennan is the epitome of Washington insiderism that the base detests.
The Senate was as empty as it normally is during Graham and McCain's old-man-bully tantrums on the Senate floor Thursday morning. If they truly cared about the future of the party and what is good for America, they'd have recognized Paul scored a win and kept their egos under wraps.